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Oded Golan, shown in Tel Aviv last week, is on trial for allegedly forging antiquities including an ossuary said to be the burial box of Jesus’s brother.
Oded Golan, shown in Tel Aviv last week, is on trial for allegedly forging antiquities including an ossuary said to be the burial box of Jesus’s brother. (David Blumenfeld for The Boston Globe)

Trial sheds light on shadowy antiquities world

JERUSALEM -- Testimony in a Jerusalem District courtroom is giving a rare glimpse into the shadowy world of biblical antiquities.

Three of Israel's most respected experts in ancient archeological treasures are on trial, charged with 18 counts of fraud, receiving money through deception, damaging antiquities, and violations of Israeli antiquities laws.

The defendants -- collector Oded Golan, dealer and writer Robert Deutsch, and former Israel Museum conservator turned dealer Rafi Brown -- are accused of faking a range of artifacts, including the burial box of Jesus's brother, a wine decanter used in Solomon's Temple and ancient seal impressions and inscriptions, some of which were sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Since the trial began in September 2005, witnesses have described furtive encounters with Arab graverobbers, international smuggling, and transactions involving hundreds of thousands of dollars based on a handshake.

Lawyers involved in the case expect court proceedings to continue for at least another year.

Oded Golan, the first accused, shot to worldwide attention in November 2002 as the man behind a sensational discovery that rocked the world of biblical antiquities: a first-century stone ossuary, or burial box, with an ancient Hebrew inscription identifying it as the last resting place of ''James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."

The ossuary was exhibited in Toronto and hailed by scholars as the first physical link ever discovered to the family of Jesus. But when the 2-foot long limestone box returned to Israel in March 2003, it was seized by the Israel Antiquities Authority and submitted to a committee of experts to determine its authenticity.

Meanwhile, the Antiquities Authority was already investigating Golan in connection with another item, the Joash stone. This was a black stone tablet with an ancient Hebrew inscription that appeared to record the renovation of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem by King Joash in the ninth century BC. If genuine, it would be the first physical evidence of the temple ever recovered.

The committee of experts was asked to rule on both items and in June 2003 announced that both were modern fakes. Golan was arrested on suspicion of violating Israel's antiquities laws and repeatedly interrogated while police raided his apartment and two other properties in Tel Aviv. There they seized a range of tools and materials that they said could be used to fake ancient artifacts.

In December 2004, the Israeli police indicted Golan, Deutsch and Brown. Charges against two others were later dropped.

Shuka Dorfman, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, described the charges against Golan and his alleged colleagues as ''the tip of the iceberg."

''These forgeries have worldwide repercussions," Dorfman said. ''They were an attempt to change the history of the Jewish and Christian people."

Commander Shaul Naim, head of the two-year police investigation, said: ''This was fraud of a sophistication and expertise which was previously unknown. They took authentic items and added inscriptions to make them worth millions."

Naim said forgers managed to fake inscriptions, decorations, and even the patina -- the thin sediment created over centuries by moisture collecting on the item underground or in a cave. ''We believe that there are many more items in museums and collections around the world which are yet to be identified," he said.

The opening days of the trial were devoted to four days of testimony from multimillionaire collector Shlomo Moussaieff of London, a key prosecution witness. He described extraordinary scenes where dealers, experts, and even Israeli diplomats came to his home, produced rare antiquities from their pockets and negotiated sales worth many thousands of dollars.

Prosecutors said Moussaieff was swindled out of hundreds of thousands of dollars for fake items by all three defendants.

Moussaieff's purchasing power is legendary. He once paid $1.5 million for a single clay impression of a royal seal used by one of the early kings of Israel. No one has questioned the authenticity of that item, but a collection of 28 seal impressions he bought for $200,000 is now said by the Israeli police to be mostly fakes, fabricated by Golan and Deutsch.

Moussaieff, 82, told the court he bought the temple decanter from Deutsch for $150,000. Police said it was an authentic item but the inscription was faked with the help of Golan, who received half the money. Moussaieff also described buying several inscribed pieces of pottery from Golan and Deutsch for $200,000, and similar pottery from a dealer acting for Rafi Brown for $180,000. Police said those items were also fakes.

Moussaieff told the court he stood by the authenticity of every item in his collection but said if he had been fooled, he only had himself to blame.

''I'm not stupid, I don't throw money away just because someone has come to sell me something," Moussaieff said in an interview during a break in the trial. ''I'm suspicious of everything and everybody, particularly when there are large amounts of money involved. I still believe these items are genuine. I think the James ossuary is genuine."

Moussaieff said he had spent millions of dollars on his collection of antiquities intending to prove the truth of the Bible.

Both Golan and Deutsch reject all the charges against them and accuse the Israeli authorities of a witch hunt, insisting that all the items are genuine.

''There is not one grain of truth in the fantastic allegations relating to me," Golan, who has been under house arrest at his parents' home for more than a year, said in an interview.

Deutsch also denies ever faking antiquities. ''The authorities have ruined my reputation and I have lost my university teaching position because of the baseless charges," he said during a break in the proceedings.

The court will have a hard time deciding between the experts who are due to give evidence. The findings of the committee appointed by the Antiquities Authority have been questioned by geologists, epigraphers and archeologists.

In his defense, Golan is planning to call Dr. Wolfgang Krumbein, a world expert in ancient stone from Carl von Ossietzky University in Germany. Krumbein carried out extensive tests on the items in Jerusalem and said in a written report that he found ''no indisputable evidence confirming the claim that any or all of the items had been produced in the last several decades."

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